PL02 - Flight of the Wicked Flea

by Haro James :

Copyright© 2019 by Haro James :

Science Fiction Story: London, 1829. Two criminal enclaves battle for supremacy south of the Thames. Second in a steampunk collection from 2015 (notice: no real or virtual steam was applied in this particular story). ~5,200 words.

Tags: Steampunk   Historical  

“The Bible perfects divine laws unfettered by the state. The Liberties of London, on the other hand, exemplify profane states unfettered by law.”

Honorable Henry Wallbrighte, Member for Hallistone House of Commons debates, December 1829


As 1829 drew to a close, a century of conflict was also coming to an end. This was not a matter of Napoleonic slaughter of so many tens of thousands of Russian soldiers, nor some ecclesiastic princes lashing one another with hellfire. Rather it involved the gain of a dozen square yards here or the loss of one side of a laneway there. Happily, the casualties were of a lesser scale as well – best exemplified by the eight casualties in the ferocious battle of Broughton Yard. Such were the wars of the Liberties of London.

Archaic enclaves free of civil interference, the Liberties were a legacy of Crown grants to various pre-Tudor religious establishments – meaning Holy Catholique bishops, abbots and so on. As long as the Church held sway, the Liberties were subject to a canon law as exacting as its civil counterpart. The churchmen were eventually brought to heel by (more accurately, ground under the heel of) Cromwell on behalf of The Great Harry.

For reasons never fully understood, the exemption from Crown jurisdiction continued long after the Church was expelled. The Liberties became islets of refuge from the good laws of the Kingdom. Following the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, Parliament rushed through the Six Acts to suppress the radical press, outlaw demonstrations and crush conspiracies, real or imagined. Now, the Liberties could be said to be a refuge from the bad laws of the Kingdom.

What sort of refugees? They were debtors, petty thieves, bigamists, runaway apprentices, public drunkards, footpads, and one energetic fellow who sired no less than thirty one bastards in the villages between Newdigate and the aptly named Beddington Place – that one was promised a particularly painful, if unimaginative, punishment should any of the angry fathers lay hands on him. Certainly, not the worst sorts if immigrants.

Of course, there were those even the lawless rejected: Quakers and other New Christians; judges; revealed police informers; penniless lunatics (monied ones were quite welcome); those who killed as a hobby (murder for hire was a longstanding and honorable trade, but amateurs were frowned upon); and democrats.

The Liberties treated the democrats more harshly than any other criminal type. First, the democrats were bent of changing the laws and making all men equal – or at least more men more equal. Many a Liberty resident had experience with government, church and charitable good works whose intent was to improve their lot in life. They weren’t sure how much more improving they could survive. Tinkering with the laws would strip the few advantages they had. Frankly, libertymen were more interested in the profitable breaking of the laws than in changing them.

Second, printing and speechifying as they did, the revolutionaries drew the wrath of Crown and City, making a precarious existence even more difficult. Thirty years before, a tiny liberty in Westminster allowed a reformist printing press to set up. Within the month, a mysterious fire consumed the entire block. The local fire brigade looked on impassively as residents begged for help. They must not infringe, the firemen said, upon the sacred freedom of the liberty. Many died, and more were left homeless. A few desperate souls fled out of bounds, to be seized by bounty-takers. Lesson learned, as they say.

Beginning in the 1720’s, a few of the brighter felons realized these islands free of fussy legal interference could be more than hidey holes from the bailiffs. While no respectable citizen would live there, they had no objection to having some of their goods pass through. The former Liberty of the Clink – this was before the David-swallows-Goliath takeover by the Montague – became famous as a major depot of untaxed whiskey. Saffron Hill carried a lively trade in contraband silk, and so on. Like nations, each specialized in one thing or another.

Like nations, this patchwork of pocket-size independencies fell to jostling for position. At first, it was much like rival village idiots tussling over kingship of the dung heap. As outside investments in the liberties grew, motivation to plunder weaker neighbors became more compelling. The conflicts took a altogether nasty turn. War, arguably the most inventive of humanity’s pastimes, played out in any number of forms, on both sides of the Thames.

To the north of the Thames, numerous strong contenders meant the strife would continue for at least another couple of years. While the sentimental favored Norton Folgate, smart money settled on Saffron Hill to become the paramount City-side liberty.

On the Southwark shore, it came down to a pair of adjacent Liberties: the Mint and Montague Close. More strategic necessity than formal agreement, the two had minded the other’s back over the decades while each went about swallowing up their neighbours. After absorbing all the others, they finally turned on each other. The winner would either face off against, or work in conjunction with, the consolidated liberties of the City-side of the Thames. Considerable rewards awaited the survivors.

In truth, both Mint and Montague were working up to the same final consolidation, which, regardless of who won, would likely be called the United Borough Liberties. For some of the lesser lights, it seemed a shame to spend so many more lives (theirs, for the most part) when an accommodation – a merger perhaps – could achieve the joint end.

“Treason, treachery and cowardice” cried the leadership in both camps. The dissidents were promptly expelled in the time honored manner. A hand bell was rung as an offender was swung hands-and-feet briskly before being thrown across the enclave’s boundary line. The ringing drew the ever-lurking bountytakers, who would bundle him off to the magistrate’s bench. For sport, the dissidents were tossed at intervals. This allowed spectators to wager on how fast the expelled man was picked up and by which bountytaker. Betting was quite brisk.

The Montague were preparing to move on the first day of the new year. 1830, they made no secret, was to be the year of the Montague mastery. When informed by their spies, the Council of the Mint just smiled. They were well along with their own plans, which were better concealed and timed to preempt their rivals.

They also followed a more able leader, in the person of His Honor, Joshua Conny Poole. Nearing forty, Poole had been a liberty resident for eleven years, and its president for five. His Jamaican great grandfather came as a child slave to London, returned to the Caribbean as a bodyguard, sired innumerable children, and died during a raid in the Cockpit. His dying request to his owner was to have his youngest raised in England. Lewis the boy went, and served well enough to earn his freedom. Lewis the man rose to manage his former master’s affairs, and to produce a covey of Caribe-Catalonian boys with the head cook. He also adapted the family name from Pappoe to Poole for the comfort of his white neighbors. Joshua’s father served in the Royal Navy until deserting in Marseilles. On his wife’s death, he committed his children to the care of their London relatives, then disappeared.

So Joshua Kwame Poole came to London. The well-honed story went that he was too restless to adapt and prosper as his forefathers had in legitimate pursuits, and became a man of many murky adventures. Finally, one close call too many drove him across the Thames into the tiny Southwark liberty. The untold adventure was his attempt to spirit Henry Hunt, hero of Peterloo, away from the gallows. Although the plot failed, Poole escaped. He had no illusions though, that once identified, the hangman awaited.

Well before his flight across the Thames, he was known as Joshua Conny Poole, his middle name being as easily corrupted as the family name. Once proclaimed president, his followers became known as Blue Connys (hence the spate of blue rabbit tattoos) or more often, just the Blues. He himself was called, by friend and foe, Lord of the Borough Blues.

While proper society might balk at leadership by a Caribe black, there was little proper to be found in the criminal class of London. They measured how well a gang ate, and how many members avoided arrest before testing irrelevancies like color. The Blue Connys prospered where others failed, therefore were superior.

By custom, Poole met daily with his captains and weekly with the Council of the Mint. After significant Council meetings, Poole might spend the evening in solitary reflection. Following a particularly disquieting September Council meeting, he and a bottle of port sat down for a reflecting session.

No one else seemed to have put the facts together as he had. Everything pointed to defeat within a year. Poole filled a glass and thought. In less than an hour, he had drilled down to the essential barrier to victory: getting enough of his fighting men to opposition territory. Determining the problem was the first step. He recalled the succession of ploys to get men to the fight.

As legal papers could not be served on the day of rest, the earliest days of conflict were called the Sunday Wars. Come Sunday dawn, gangs raided one another, brawled in public spaces and generally make a nuisance of themselves. This came to an end when outraged citizens began blocking up the entrances to the sanctuaries while the gangs were out at mischief. If the blockages could not be cleared by sunset, the villains were liable to arrest. Sunday quickly became a day of rest once more.

A few years later came the subterranean campaigns. Knocking out walls between cellars, and tunneling under streets, gangs engaged in savage underground melees. At times, sections of streets collapsed, killing combatants and passing innocents alike. Soon bountytakers learned to detect the tunneling, and to drive iron pipes from street to tunnel, through which they pumped noxious gases and liquids. The agents received the same bounty, dead or alive.

In the next phase, which wags called the Age of Novelty: catapults delivered rocks, men and garbage from one islet to the next; men ran the rooflines, inching over laneways on creaking planks; poisoned beer barrels decimated opposition drinking dens; fighters kitted out as chimney sweeps, cesspit cleaners or beggars raided with varied successes; and a duo of female assassins, dressed as grog-sodden whores, left no fewer than two score corpses in their wake. But novelty eventually exhausted itself.

Holy days, tunnels, rooftops. Ah, rooftops. One might be forgiven for thinking rooftop travel meant the libertymen were not on English soil, and therefore could not be arrested. The problem with rooftops was their attachment to houses, which were affixed to the ground, and jurisdiction flowed through that permanent connection. He had a glimmer of thought about non-permanent attachment, and how that might work. He pondered through another bottle.

The next morning, Poole awoke with a table plank-embossed cheek, a punishing headache, and a solution. That solution was lodged in Marshalsea Prison, just across Borough High Street.

Poole, only vaguely aware of the Biblical inspiration, followed Moses in sending spies out among the enemy. In his own mind, His Honor was simply following the example of his Maroon ancestors when he regularly sent men out to scout obstacles and opportunities.

One of their first stops was among the debtors newly arrived at Marshalsea Prison. Most were dregs, too indolent, duplicitous or stupid to be useful. But occasionally a gem turned up. In August, the scouts reported on one Jonathan Arturo Brookleigh, inventor, incarcerated for debts in excess of two-hundred guineas. Having squandered a sizeable legacy and then borrowed against friends until they fled at sight, Brookleigh was unlikely to ever stroll under free skies again.

Poole set to work exercising his talent for extracting the most from his legendary cheerfully offered, self-serving favors. Once clear on how the various pieces fit together, he set into motion a trio of interlocking favors to three men who lacked control. One couldn’t manage his sister, the second couldn’t discipline his willie, and the third couldn’t reign in his spending.

It played out like this: An outraged brother was obliged for information on the whereabouts of his sister’s seducer, from whom Poole wheedled eighteen shillings “for expenses”. The sire of those dozens of bastards blanched on learning said outraged brother was skulking about the Mint, and gratefully accepted a swap of identities and places with the Marshalsea prisoner – an arrangement thoughtfully brokered by Poole. Brookleigh happily became a working guest of the Liberty, applying his particular expertise.

That expertise arose from the years Brookleigh spent building and flying balloons in Rouen. In exchange for building and launching a balloon for the Conny Blues, Brookleigh would be given passage in one of the multitude of luggers plying the Manche Waters between Dover and Calais. Poole told him his best bet was to either set up in France again or take ship to America. In either case, he advised the aeronaut to change his name and occupation.

During that November and December, the Blues cobbled together an aeroship of sound design, employing less sound skills and materials. Brookleigh, given carte blanc, ordered up a vast array of goods: silk by the bolt; light line by the spool; vitriol by the carboy; iron by the hundredweight. All these, and more, the Blues begged, borrowed or, preferably, stole.

Tailors and seamstresses among the cast-off citizenry joined up great swaths of silk, once, then twice as the fabric was doubled up. A fugitive apprentice from a furniture shop applied layer after layer of lacquer to make the whole thing gas tight. The cordage was woven and joined to enclose the silk gas bag, then to prevent punctures or abrasions, wrapped in purloined velvet.

Throughout, the president badgered the aeronaut about all manner of details, until in exasperation, the man pulled on a threadbare cloak as he headed for the door. Amid the shouted warnings he would be pinched before he got ten feet out of the liberty, Brookleigh shrugged. It would be more peaceful to be back in Marshalsea than to put up with a barrage of uninformed questions from the blowhard in charge. Apologies and promises of better behavior were offered and accepted. The work continued.

Brookleigh was clear from the beginning that there was no way it could carry the load Poole wanted AND be self-propelled. Poole grudgingly accepted that limitation. Then, as his plan evolved, he determined it was of great benefit to not have a heavy, noisy, fuel-hungry steam engine aboard.

More germane, but thoroughly avoided by Brookleigh was the question of it actually staying aloft. There was neither time nor place to test it out. He had made the most accurate calculations he could, and managed the workers to the best of his ability. But too many questions were outstanding: payload, integrity of the silk bag, purity of the hydrogen lifting gas, tensile strength of the lines. Too many uncertainties, but for one.

Unknown outside of the Council, this was a time of truly dire circumstances for the Mint. On Christmas Eve, after his regular report to the Council, Brookleigh was surprised to be locked in with the rest of them rather than be shooed out. Poole assured Brookleigh that his personal health and safety was involved.

Looking like he needed to crawl back into his inspirational bottle, His Honor asked after the state of Mint finances. When the treasurer reported that by the time of the launch, they would have fewer than ten guineas left, the room fell into an aghast silence. Poole summed it up “We are bled white for this enterprise, gents. If we do not recoup expenses from the Montague, the Liberty of the Mint will fall. And every man jack in this room is gallows-bait.”

Among the rank and file, discussion centered more on what to name it than whether it would fly or not. Poole initially referred to it as The Montague’s Lament, but his men shied away from putting a sworn enemy’s name on their secret weapon. At that point, they didn’t know exactly how it was to be used, but they knew bad luck when they heard it.

The Mint’s senior captain, a defrocked minister, caught the fancy of the rankers with a Biblical reference. He suggested calling it The Wicked Flee, from Proverbs 28, offering by way of example “the wicked flee before we righteous Blues”. The Conny Blue’s interest was bolstered after a ranker claimed the name was from a poem where a flea bite helped a gent top a reluctant lass. No one but the former minister had actually read Donne’s poem, and knew the suitor was unsuccessful. But he was wise enough to let a good thing run when it had legs. As the men shouted their approval, he offered a wry shrug to Poole, who nodded. “Wicked Flea” it was.

As the work progressed on the Wicked Flea, Poole and his captains made and remade the list of their best fighters, drew and redrew various routes to Rochester Yard Market and generously plied with ale any beggar whose circuit included a bit of Montague turf.

A party of “clean men” (that is, not yet wanted for their misdeeds) walked the most likely routes, noting buildings and obstacles. Then they did the same in the dead of night. One of the Mintmen, an art-faker and forger, muralled streetscapes on the walls of the common room. The advance men penciled in the time between given points, noted poor footing, identified public houses active in the small hours and even X-marked a den of troublesome dogs. The notations and murals told Poole where to plan for sharp changes of direction and tight passages.

Brookleigh declared the Wicked Flea ready two days before the planned action – a surprise raid to very heart of the Montague headquarters. The Mintmen were well-schooled in keeping secrets. The balloon was concealed and inflated in an inaccessible courtyard. On that day, His Honor, the President of the Liberty of the Mint, addressed the assembled Blues. Rather than making a call for adventure or sentimental recollections of honor and glory, Poole got to the main topic.

“Right then. Many of you have figured this out already. We’re taking the fight to Montague Close. The Wicked Flea will carry a raiding party of thirty one men.”

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